Tuesday, January 13, 2009  
2008 in Review

:: Posted by BK @ 1/13/2009 01:27:00 a.m.
2008: The Year in Review
by Bryan Munn

We try to cover all aspects of the art of cartooning and comix here at Sequential, but sometimes its hard to see the big picture in the daily grind of blogging about the various press releases, publishing events and awards presentations that make up the comic book culture of Canada. That's why it's important to try to stand back and take a breath once in awhile, and the beginning of a new year is as good a time as any to look back over the past months and ask, 'what was it all about?' Of course, being a relatively tiny, amateur operation, Sequential can't hope to be anywhere near definitive in its coverage and analysis, especially when trying to get a handle on how, as our mandate has it, the "notable international tectonic movements of the Sequential arts" effect us here in our little regional tidal pool. Specifically, how does what's happening in the publishing world of New York, or in Hollywood, Europe or Japan, determine how comics are made and enjoyed (or not) in our country? This year, I've attempted to narrow the focus of this year-end review to a tiny trio of items that hopefully will speak to these questions.

Here are the top stories of 2008:

1. The Economy

(keywords: comics retailers, the dollar)

Whether it was news of the Quebecor bankruptcy, Raincoast downsizing, or discussions by Canadian comics retailers about the dollar and the price of U.S. comics, every other story that we blogged about in 2008 seemed to have an economic aspect to it. Last year, the misadventures of the Canadian dollar were at the bottom of Sequential's list of trends and newsmakers. This year, the economy is unavoidably first and foremost, even if you take the current round of 'panic in the streets'-style hand-ringing and headline-writing with an enormous mound of salt. The fluctuation in the dollar that everyone was talking about in 2007 seemed to stabilize at parity with the the U.S. greenback before tumbling down around the 80% mark where it currently hovers. At the very least, this means that U.S. monthly comic books (floppies) are once again more expensive in Canada. As are imported graphic novels and other books. Combine this with the other effects of the recession in Canada (lost savings from the market meltdown, joblessness, and the general anxiety about the stagnating economy) and the effects on the market for comics are bound to be notable. Although I haven't seen any hard numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests that the book retail market, slowing for a decade, is in a slump, and that book sales, at least through traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, will continue to decline. Of course, graphic novel and manga sales through bookstores have been one of the few growth areas in recent years (to expect endless growth in unrealistic and really one of the causes of the current crisis), so it remains uncertain whether or not these specific categories will decline. Sales of comics and graphic novels through Canadian comic book shops also remain a numerical mystery overall, since Diamond, the U.S. company that controls distribution of most comics product in Canada (and introduced an expensive computerized ordering system for retailers in 2008), does not make separate sales figures for this country available, although a few recent Diamond statements indicate slight (5%) growth in the U.S.-Canada graphic novel market in 2008. According to Brian Garside, owner of Canadian online retailer All-New Comics, several small town comics retailers have shut down recently as prices have risen,which means that, even if sales seem to be rising in some areas, there are likely many overlooked niches where the opposite is true.

How comics publishers will fare in the recession remains unclear. Certainly a larger Canadian publisher like Drawn and Quarterly, which maintains a strong international profile and exports to larger Anglo markets in the U.S. and United Kingdom, is in a better position than the handful of relatively tiny French-language and boutique English-language Canadian publishers, although these publishers are putting the most actual Canadian content into print. It is safe to say that publishers will be cautious, if not exactly draconian in terms of publishing schedules and print-runs. Certain trends are just visible: Internationally, actual new releases by U.S. manga publishers are expected to decline up to 10%, according to one source. Canadian retailer Chris Butcher has some very cogent analysis and predictions about the market for translated Japanese comics in a pair of recent blog posts here and here. Most intriguingly, Butcher predicts a greater synergy between U.S. manga publishers (including the imminent arrival of Japanese giant Kodansha) and the Direct Market. He also predicts that prestige volumes of adult-oriented art manga, pioneered by D+Q with books like Red Colored Elegy and the Tatsumi project are one of the few areas where growth may be possible. Other future aspects of the U.S. publishing industry remain a black box of mystery. U.S. retailers continue to complain about Marvel and DC publishing strategies as they seem set for the foreseeable future.

The economic recession may also effect those actually making a living from creating comics, whether they are political or strip cartoonists working within the ever-shrinking newspaper industry, writers or artists producing work-made-for-hire comics for U.S. publishers, or cartoonists who make the bulk of their living doing illustration for magazine or business clients. Since record numbers of Canadians are doing comics work for foreign publishers, this is shaping up to be a big story. With the slowdown expected to last at least until the end of 2009, this story is not going away anytime soon and we encourage readers to contact us or comment about their own experiences.

2. Skim

(keywords: skim)

This graphic novel by two cousins, cartoonist Jillian Tamaki and writer Mariko Tamaki, was the buzz book of the year, and wins a spot in this annual summary because it personifies a number of 2008's biggest trends. First, the book is a high quality work, well-reviewed online and in the mainstream press, and a brisk seller, as seen by its regular placement on the Sequential Bestseller List. These facts alone make the book a big story. While there was quite a bit of wonderful comics released in 2008, none had quite the impact of Skim. One of the trends that the book rode to its advantage was the move to larger publishers. The book was published by Groundwood, a major children's publisher owned by Anansi Press, with excellent international distribution and a strong publicity department. Skim is Groundwood's first graphic novel but the trend is widespread, involving not only the New York publishers, but also smaller Canadian organisms like Penguin Canada and Kids Can Press. This trend relates to another which Skim embodies: the move to a focus on children's and young adult comics material at the expense of adult-oriented material. Whether or not this is actually a long-term trend, as commentators like Tom Spurgeon and Eddie Campbell have speculated, there are certainly many more teen-oriented books being issued by traditional book publishers, and Skim is the most high-profile of these. This issue was brought to prominence when Skim was nominated for a Governor General's award, the first graphic novel to receive that honour. Despite being a mature work of art, embraced by all ages of readers and reviewers, Skim was nominated in the children's book category and, notoriously, the artist Jillian Tamaki was not mentioned in the nomination. This event resulted in a campaign lead by several prominent Canadian and international cartoonists to have the awards recognize both creators. The campaign had no effect and the book lost out to a prose work, the whole debacle illustrating how, despite widespread recognition and honours, the graphic novel is still largely misunderstood by the publishing industry, even though the best possible people are on the case.

3. Lynn Johnston

(keyword: Lynn Johnston)

Johnston was number one on the Sequential list in 2007 and she remains one of the top comics newsmakers for 2008. Besides her status as the de facto Queen of Canadian Comics --by virtue of the enormous financial success and popularity of her For Better or For Worse comic strip-- Johnston makes our list this year almost as much for what she didn't do. Sure, her latest book collection was consistently in the top ten of the Sequential bestseller list. And sure, she was inducted into the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame, the first woman to be so honoured. And sure, she continued to be a major philanthropist, giving of her times and money to numerous animal, medical, and cultural causes across the country and internationally. But the most significant news story, and the story that dominated comic strip news over the entire year, was the continuing saga of the drawn-out ending of For Better or For Worse and its reincarnation as a reformatted, redrawn, zombie-Frankenstein version of its former self.

Johnston's decision to continue her strip, after effectively, and with much fanfare and philosophizing, ending it, wrapping up all of the plotlines and halting the Gasoline Alley-like aging of her characters, is significant in several ways. The decision to revisit aspects of the strip using a photo-album format, in essence as a mixture of legacy strip and 'greatest hits' package, drew criticism from comics fans and young cartoonists, everywhere from The Washington Post to The Comics Journal Messageboard. Many critics saw the continuation of the strip as unfair to the many cartoonists with fresh ideas and no repeats who have no hope of finding space in the newspaper. As well, Johnston's partial retirement also marks an end of sorts for an era of newspaper cartooning. She represents one of the last of the generation of creators who began their strips before 1980 and attained the kind of circulation and numbers that are almost impossible to achieve these days, influencing several generations of younger readers and cartoonists in the mean time. With the impending death of print (or at least, the death of print comic strips in newspapers), and the attendant decline in newspaper culture and journalism, Johnston can be seen as sort of a poster-child for old media and a world that is passing. Despite a robust web-presence for the strip and an active, opinionated face in public, the 62-year-old Johnston seems out of touch with the 21st-Century world of webcomics and graphic novels, preferring, as in her interview at the Giants of the North ceremony, to dwell on the past highpoints of her amazing career.


General 2008 Overview and Summary


Montreal publisher Mecanique generale had the most diverse and graphically innovative line of graphic novels in 2008, while upstart publisher Conundrum released a few gems. David Widdington's Cumulous Press closed down, as did the extremely long-running anthology and fanzine Mensuhell.

(keywords: publishing, book launches, graphic novels )


(keyword: awards)

Those seeking a guide to some of the best and the most beautiful Canadian comics recognized this past year could do worse than review the various comix awards handed out in 2008:

Prix Bedeis Causa

Prix Bedelys

National Newspaper Award

Shuster Awards

Prix Expozine

Wright Awards

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